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Author Interview: Harlan Coben

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Harlan Coben

It all started with an ugly little paperback: The cover art (a bleeding football) appeared to be only the first step in a diabolical plot to alienate all but the most avid sports fan. And the author wasn't exactly a household name. Despite two hardcover thrillers which sold well and led to wide paperback distribution, not many people knew of Harlan Coben. From this unassuming beginning was born the legend that is Myron Bolitar. Cough.

Okay, so Harlan had to threaten me into reading DEAL BREAKER. Really. And all I could think was, "Such a wonderfully funny man. If I hate his book, what can I possibly say that will sound sincere?" Immediately, I began to practice vague but soothing phrases like, "So unusual! This book has created a niche of its own." or "Great stand alone novel; what are you writing next?" In case I needed something more specific, I might have resorted to, "That scene with the team? So full of ENERGY! Wow!"

Then, not able to postpone the inevitable, I got myself a copy of DEAL BREAKER. I can still recall where I was when I began reading it. I was on the F train, between Smith-9th Sts and 4th Avenue, aboveground, seated across from a man whose funny-looking head was silhouetted by the sunset through the window. I remember his ears sticking way out, and a scarlet sky flaming through them, when I looked up. I looked up because I needed more air. I needed more air because I'd started laughing. More than 3 years later, I'm still laughing. If anyone knows of an inexpensive oxygen tent, call me.

Harlan Coben's meteoric ascendancy within the mystery genre may seem surprising to anyone who's seen his old series cover art but not to anyone who's read his work. These addictive novels featuring sports agent and smart aleck, Myron Bolitar, are a once-read, forever-a-fan scenario; they are the Lays Potato Chips of mysterydom. They're funny, they're intelligent; the plotting is superb, twisty and surprising. Coben's won the Anthony, the Edgar, the Shamus and even the coveted Nevermore Award. Blurbs from the gods rain down on Harlan's editor because "the book made them do it." The series is published internationally. Coben is on Japanese television. People return his phone calls.

ONE FALSE MOVE is the best yet from this lauded author. Myron Bolitar is asked to play bodyguard to the rising star of women's pro-basketball, Brenda Slaughter. Myron figures it's an easy gig and maybe if he performs this little favor he might profit two-fold: Zoom, the sports-clothing conglomerate, will owe him big-time plus Brenda needs an agent and, well, Myron IS an agent. Neat how that works. But nothing is quite that neat and when death threats and Brenda's father's disappearance take on a more serious tone, Myron finds himself more deeply involved than he could have ever imagined. Click here for an excerpt from ONE FALSE MOVE.


Q: Fans frequently confuse an author with his protagonist. Dennis Lehane says it took him a few years to stop his girlfriend from calling him Pat (after his detective Pat Kenzie). Do people ever call you Myron? And why not? He used to play basketball and you used to play basketball. He's from New Jersey and you're from New Jersey. He's very tall and you're very tall. He's got a really fabulous ass...assortment of friends and, ahem, you have some friends, right?

A: That's odd. Dennis Lehane's girlfriend calls me Pat too. Oh well. There are some similarities between Myron and myself -- that's not completely unintentional -- especially in terms of outlook and world view and all that nonsense. But there's a lot of wish-fulfillment involved here. Myron is funnier, braver, a far better basketball players, better fighter, better friend -- but I have the better love interest (i.e, my wife), the kind of family Myron dreams about having (he's single while I have two kids) and of course, I'm a snazzier dancer. Watch. (He demonstrates).

Q: Okay, so Myron beats you hands down (Coben fans world-wide are welcomed to argue). But I'll beg your patience with one more question about this topic: You've dedicated ONE FALSE MOVE to your parents, who are deceased. Myron's relationship with his parents is very rich, loving and supportive. What made you create these characters?

A: Most protagonists in my subgenre have either no relationship with their parents or a very bad one. I didn't want that in this series. I wanted Myron, like yours truly, to be close to his parents. I loved my parents. They were wonderful and I miss them every day. Now that I'm a parent, I often look back and try to figure out how they did it, almost like a child watching a magician. So I wanted that for Myron. Readers seem to respond to the relationship -- I think in many ways it's more realistic than all the generational alienation -- but the scenes between Myron and his mom and dad are almost too painful to write. On the other hand, when I write them, -- and this is going to sound extra corny -- it's almost like I'm reliving what I can no longer have. It's the aspect of Myron's life that I most envy.

Q: Everybody asks about Win and Esperanza - so let's give someone else a chance. What about Big Cyndi?

A: When I first created this series, there was no Esperanza. Myron's office assistant was Big Cyndi. An early reader suggested that I ax Big Cyndi and make the office female more attractive. Sexist, no? But, alas, it was a female who made the suggestion. I scoffed the idea at first -- I always do. But then it kind of gnawed at me. Before I knew it, Esperanza was coming to life in my head. Big Cyndi however never left my thoughts. When I needed someone else to join the office staff, well, there she was. Nice when it works out like that.

Q: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up (author's note: it took a while, Coben is 6'4")? Did you always want to write?

A: I get a kick out of the writers who says, "Oh yes, I knew I was going to write when I was still a fetus and at the age of four, the children used to gather around me during recess as I regaled them with my exciting tales of pirate ships, blah, blah, blah." That didn't cut in my neighborhood -- or, I suspect, any other neighborhood outside of Mayberry RFD. I didn't know I wanted to write until my senior year of college. I suspect the reason had something to do with the fact that I'm not fit to do anything else. Like, say, work.

Q: How did you manage to write four books in 32 months while being Mr. Mom with an infant daughter at home?

A: It usually takes me about nine months to finish a book. Yes, this is like having a baby. I would tell you all the similarities between child-bearing and book-bearing except that that's been done to death. I will add, however, that in both cases, the best part is the idea....the beginning.... okay, the, uh, conception, for those who aren't catching my drift. I write whenever I can. And when I'm not writing, I'm thinking about it. I can't tell you how many plot problems I solved while driving in a car with my wife. I would say stuff like, "Hey, wait a minute! What if I...?" And my wife would nod and pretend she was actually listening. It helps.

Now, I have a bit more of a schedule. I drop Charlotte -- that's my four year old -- off at pre-school, head straight to the local coffee bar, write for about three hours. If I can grab another hour or two in the afternoon or evening, that's a bonus. I'm also a streak writer. Take ONE FALSE MOVE for example. It ended up being about 375 pages in manuscript form. When I hit page 300 or so, I called my editor. I told him I'd be a little late delivering the book, that it would take me at least another month to finish up. Four days later, I called him and said, "It's done." I wrote the last forty pages in one day. Something like that happens to me with every book. It's a most welcome surprise and a great feeling.

Q: You've written two short stories using the first person narrative (ENTRAPPED, Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine, Spring 1997; and A SIMPLE PHILOSOPHY, Malice Domestic, September 1998). Which do you prefer, first person or third, and why?

A: In my series, I write what I call a "cheating third-person." The narrative is very close to first person, but it is indeed third person. This gives me room to cheat a bit, go into someone else's head, change points of view, whatever. But as I go on, I do that less and less. DEAL BREAKER, the first in the series, had lots of scenes from viewpoints other than Myron's. ONE FALSE MOVE, I think, has none. Both short stories were written in the first person from a female viewpoint. Very different from Myron. They were lots of fun to write.

Q: Sports - primarily basketball - is featured in all of your books, including your first two stand-alone novels. You must have realized that you were going against the (genre) grain - so what made you choose competitive sports and why are you still using that theme?

A: I don't like sports. People find that hard to believe, but it's true. I never watch it on TV. I don't think I've attended a local pro game in the past two years. That never drove me. And it doesn't drive the books. What I like about the sports world is the potential for conflict and even murder. Not to get too heavy here, but the sports world is a super-intense, high-stakes microcosm. Every emotion is fervently raised to the tenth power. People care about winning and losing way too much. We treat kids who are barely old enough to vote into neo-gods. The money, the power, the fame, the passion -- it's scary. And a ripe arena for murder and suspense.

Q: Any dictums you live by which might help other writers? Any suggestions?

A: Most of the standard clichés apply, I'm afraid. Write. Write a lot. Then rewrite it again. Read good authors. Write. I'm not big on writing workshops, mostly because criticism paralyzes me. We all say, "No, really, tell me the truth." But to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, I can't handle the truth. So lie to me, baby. If a workshop makes you write, great. But remember the criticism of a friend may be useful and then again it may be total nonsense. You write by yourself, not with a group. It's important to practice that discipline.

Q: What's the very best comment to hear from a fan? And what's the one question you'd love to be asked?

A: Two people today told me that ONE FALSE MOVE made them cry. That pleased me a lot. The one question that nobody has ever asked me and that I'd like to be asked? Easy. Why are you so dang good-looking? No one has ever asked me that. Ever.

Q: Can you tell us something about your current work-in-progress?

A: Hmm, not much. It is another Myron Bolitar book. The rest I'd like to keep secret for now. Talking about a book is bad for the writing process. There's a certain energy there, a pressing need to get the story out of my head and on paper. If I stop everyone on the street and give them a plot summary, well, that's an escape valve for the tension. I know that doesn't make sense, but go with it.

Q: What do you see yourself doing - or writing - a decade from now?

A: No clue. I want to keep writing better. I look at ONE FALSE MOVE and it seems light years better than the early Myron books. I want to keep that up. If that means staying with Myron and Win and Esperanza, super-dee-duper. I like them. They're more real to me than most people I know. If it means trying something new, I'll do that too.

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